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Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Prophets (Cimabue, ca. 1290-1300), tempera on wood

Cimabue was the link between Byzantine art and the art of the Renaissance. His use of shaded form and realistic proportion would lead to a sweeping revolution in painting, yet his work maintains the stolid architectural grandeur (and sloe-eyed otherworldliness) of art from the eastern empire.  According to Vasari, Cimabue was Giotto’s master, and although scholars have disputed it based on enigmatic sentences in ancient documents, artists accept it as truth because there is so much of Cimabue in Giotto’s works. This painting originally hung in the Vallombrosians church of Santa Trinita in Florence (Cimabue was a Florentine).

Although the Madonna and Roman-philosopher-attired Baby Jesus (and their bevy of dusky angels with ultramarine/scarlet wings) are quite grand, my favorite part of the composition is the giant strange ivory throne they are seated upon and the Old Testament prophets arrayed along the bottom.  From left to right these are Jeremiah, Abraham, David (see his little crown), and Isaiah.  They are reading and writing in phylacteries and the two prophet prophets, Jeremiah and Isaiah are looking up at the messiah, a sight they never beheld, yet beheld before all others.

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

The Birth of Jesus: Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto di Bondone, ca. 1304-1306, fresco)

It’s day two of sheep week! Yesterday’s post got pretty involved with practical and useful aspects of sheep, so today we are veering wildly to the opposite extreme—sheep in art. There are lots and lots of sheep in art from cave paintings of ancient prehistory to Babylonian murals, right up to wild abstract rams by Andrew Wyeth and elegant empty sheep skulls by Georgia O’Keefe. It’s hard to choose from so many beautiful works, so we are going to concentrate on a founding legend from the history of art itself. In art history, there is a point when the anonymous artisans of the middle ages give way to the great named masters of the Renaissance. It is the point where the history of western painting usually starts (although obviously, in reality, there were all sorts of ancient Roman, medieval, and Byzantine antecedents). The point when art becomes the discipline we think of today (with genius masters struggling in their Brooklyn garrets when they are not posting little blog articles about sheep) is usually considered to be the career of Giotto. Giotto lived from 1266 (?) to 1337 and popularized many of the bedrock principals and tropes underlying artistic painting from the early Renaissance right up until the First World War (when painting, like humanity, got all messed up). I put one of his nativity murals at the top of this story to show his use of perspective and shaded forms—innovations often attributed to Giotto. The great art historian Vasari grandiloquently summed up the view that painting originates with Giotto by writing, “In my opinion painters owe to Giotto, the Florentine painter, exactly the same debt they owe to nature, which constantly serves them as a model and whose finest and most beautiful aspects they are always striving to imitate and reproduce.” Gosh.

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

Cimabue observing the Young Giotto (Gaetano Sabatelli, 19th century, oil)

So where did Giotto come from? Vasari provides that story too. One day the great artisan, Cimabue was passing through the farmland of Tuscany when he saw a lively little shepherd boy surrounded by his flock. The child was scratching pictures of the sheep on a rock with the earth, charcoal, and sticks at hand. The pictures were so beautiful and lifelike that Cimabue was stunned. He went immediately to the shepherd’s master and begged for the privilege of taking the boy as apprentice and teaching him painting (which the astonished yokel immediately granted). Giotto’s genius flowered in Cimabue’s shop with the proper materials and subjects at hand.

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (José María Obregón, 1857, oil on canvas)

The story is dramatic and beautiful. It is like a classical myth or miracle from a saint’s life. Sadly, like classical myths and medieval hagiographies, the story of Giotto’s origin is almost certainly false. Most contemporary art historians don’t even think he studied with Cimabue!   But who cares? This is a myth about the founding of painting. It doesn’t have to be real.

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Cimabue und der junge Giotto (Clemens von Zimmermann, 1841, oil on canvas)

Not surprisingly many painters have painted renditions of this subject. Aside from Giotto’s actual painting of sheep, I have used these works from throughout art history to illustrate this strange little tale (I’m sorry if you were fooled into thinking this post was going to be about Giotto’s, you know, art—I guess we’ll have to address that some other time).

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

Giotto and Cimabue (T. de Vivo ca. late 1700s early 1800s, oil on canvas)

So according to Vasari, western painting grew organically from the Tuscan land and sprang fully grown from the Giotto’s raw genius. That it was a shepherd who had this revelation and that his first (known) subjects were sheep also seems to have symbolic significance. Does this equate artists with Jesus (something Vasari clearly felt) or is it a deeper metaphor about humankind transitioning from farming to skilled work? I wonder what this story really says about artists, truth, and innovation. I wonder even more what it says about the tormented relationship between artists and the whims of the herd…

Nativity (Pietro Perugino, 1513, oil on panel)

Nativity (Pietro Perugino, 1513, oil and tempera on panel)

Merry Christmas!  Here is a small nativity painting by Pietro Perugino, a non-believer, thug, and “bungler”.  Perugino was also the teacher of Raphael and one of the pioneers of oil-painting.  His religious works are among my very favorites because of their delicacy, color, rhythm, and beauty.  I have been thinking about him a great deal today, but since it is Christmas, you’ll have to wait for a longer post next week!

Venetian painting owes an immense debt to Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 – 1516 AD).  Not only was he the teacher of Giorgione and Titian, Bellini’s sensuous and atmospheric painting style colored the work of all the subsequent Venetian masters of the 16th century. Bellini’s figures have a grace and dignity lacking in earlier Venetian art: their emotions seem real and profound. He was also one of my favorite painter of mysterious and evocative backgrounds.

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Pietà (Giovanni Beliini, 1505, oil on wood)

Here is an exquisite Pietà by Bellini which highlights his artistic mastery. Fields of exquisite flowers (of many species and types) lead the eye back to winding roads and sinuous city walls. Looming across the entire background is Jerusalem, mysterious and lovely (and looking suspiciously like a Renaissance Italian city-state). Beyond the holy city, great mountains and cliffs march off into the horizon. Yet all of the beauty of the background is still. The roads are empty. Jerusalem seems deserted. In the foreground, Mary stares at the dead body of her son with desolate eyes. The savior is dead and the whole world has literally stopped.

Classic Knot Garden at Helmingham

A knot garden is exactly what it sounds like–a formal garden laid out to resemble a decorative knot. The concept is known to date back to Elizabethan times and may be even more ancient.  Renaissance knot gardens consisted of square compartments planted with different herbs and aromatic plants, however, as gardening developed, knot gardens took on more and more of the formal decorative elements of parterre gardens. Although today’s knot gardens are often based around boxwood parterres or other formally clipped topiary hedges, many knot gardens still have an herbal component as a reminder of Renaissance knot gardens (which were meant to have a culinary medicinal, and even magical purposes).

Traditional Elizabethan Knot Garden of Lemon Thyme and Grey Santalina

Here is a little gallery of various pretty knot gardens from around the world (although they mostly seem to be English).

A contemporary knot garden photographed by Mick Hales.

Miniature tabletop knot garden at Filoli

Tudor Knot Garden

Jacobean style Knot Garden is at the rear of the Hertford Museum, Hertfordshire

Jardins de Villandry: extravagant parterre gardens in the Loire Valley

Knot Garden at the London Garden Museum

Rosemary Verey’s Knot Garden

Margot Pattison’s Traditional Knot Garden in Winter

An English knot garden at Bill and Mary Wayne Dixon’s home

Heidelberg Castle and the Hortus Palatinus

Frederick V, the elector Palatinate and briefly crowned King of Bohemia was not a very successful ruler…but that is not the only thing that there is to life.  Frederick had a happy marriage and he was an ardent lover of gardens. When he spent a winter in England romancing Elizabeth Stuart (the daughter of King James I of the United Kingdom), Frederick was himself courted by several visionary gardeners and engineers.  In 1614, Frederick commissioned one of these men, Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot hydraulic engineer and architect, to design an epic garden around Heidelberg Castle as a present for his new bride. The garden which de Caus designed, the Hortus Palatinus, or Garden of the Palatinate, was accounted to be the finest Baroque garden in Germany.  Some awe-struck contemporaries went farther and called the garden the eighth wonder of the world.

Elizabeth Stuart (Nicholas Hilliard, ca. 1610)

Since the ground around Heidelberg castle was steep, the builders had to cut and level great terraces for the Hortus Palatinus.  Once they had carved a huge “L” shape around the castle, no expense was spared in furnishing the gardens.  Exotic plants were collected from around Europe and the world (including tropical plants such as a full grove of orange trees).  Gorgeous flowers and fully grown ornamental trees were planted amidst sumptuous statues, grottos, fountains, and follies.  Great knotted parterre mazes led the wandering visitor through the sprawling grounds where costly novelties abounded. There was a huge water organ built according to the design of an ancient Roman text, clockwork cuckoos and nightingales which sang musical pieces, and an animated statue of Memnon, a Trojan warrior who was the son of the goddess of the Dawn. Among some circles it was whispered that de Caus was a mystical Rosicrucian and he had coded secret magical wisdom within the repeating octagonal motifs of the garden.

Historic view of Heidelberg, Germany and the Hortus Palatinus

By 1619, the Hortus Palatinus, was the foremost Renaissance garden of northern Europe, and it was still not finished.  To quote Gardens of the Gods, Myth Magic and Meaning,“Heidelberg was the scene of a brief idyll of enlightenment, culture, learning, and toleration.” The young king Frederick and his pretty English bride would romantically dally in the garden he had created for her. Then everything went wrong.  Frederick V went to war with Ferdinand II and lost badly, a conflict which began the Thirty Years war.  The garden was never finished.  Instead it was destroyed by Catholic artillery who then used it as a base for destroying the city.  By the time that Frederick’s son was restored to lordship of the Lower Palatinate, the region was in ruins.  The garden was never rebuilt—it remains a picturesque ruin to this day.

The Hortus Palatinus Today

The Feast of Herod (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533. Oil on limewood)

Every artist has favorite themes which they revisit again and again throughout their life.  Rembrandt painted and repainted his own face as he went from young student to successful portraitist to sad old man. Watteau’s works often feature lovers in the lingering twilight.  Picasso was drawn again and again to the Minotaur whom he painted variously as a beast, a poet, a sensualist, a murderer, and a murder victim.  To some degree each artist can be swiftly summarized by his or her favorite images.  These artistic leitmotifs are the touchstone to an artist’s life and work.  When looking over an artist’s entire canon, one can watch certain themes wax and wane or see how the artist’s favorite subjects overlap each other.  It is rather like the category cloud to the left: except played out over a lifetime and with images only (indeed, when I finally launch my art website you can compare how my blog’s categories match those of my painting).

The Beheading of St. John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1515, oil on canvas)

My favorite gothic painter, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), had several recurrent themes. Cranach’s preferred subject was sumptuous young maidens with triangular faces who are wearing nothing but a few pieces of jewelry and the occasional wreath or transparent veil (beautiful naked people top nearly every artist’s topic list: but each artist brings his or her own unique twist!). Cranach also enjoyed painting Adam and Eve and their fall from paradise.  Like me, he loved to paint animals and his works are a veritable menagerie (only a handful of his canvases lack creatures, most notably paintings in which…well we’ll get to it below). On a darker note he painted women stabbing themselves: there are several “Lucretia” paintings in his oeuvre.  Cranach was from Saxony and the Saxon landscape of vivid forests punctuated by fortresses perched on crags is another major component of his work.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530, Oil on wood)

Most disturbing to modern sentiments, Cranach loved to paint beheadings or, more commonly, pretty women carrying severed heads. There are so many paintings like this by Cranach that it is hard to keep them separate (so please forgive any mistakes or misattributions in the following grisly gallery).

It is unclear why Cranach loved this subject so much.  Many painters have portrayed the subject of Judith and Holofernes–which speaks to nationalism, bravery, and feminism.  Even more artists are captivated by the death of John the Baptist with its martyred religious hero and its wanton villainess (whose incest-tinged struggle so strangely mirrors the travails of the goddess Ishtar).   A fair number of medieval artists painted beheadings (which were after all much more common events back then) and Théodore Géricault sometimes painted heads fresh from the guillotine.

Salome (Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1530, Oil on Wood)

But nobody that I know of carried this obsession as far as Cranach. Perhaps he is evoking the ancient theme of death and the maiden: the beautiful young women in their finery with their unknowable expressions certainly contrast dramatically with the slack ruined horror of the dead heads.  Cranach lived in a dark era when terrible deeds were common: these beheading paintings, like his symbolic masterpiece Melancholia might speak to the grim state of Europe as it plunged towards all-out religious war. Or maybe Cranach had a dark and troubled side. Was he afraid of women? Did he revel in the charnel house? Art provides a funhouse mirror of the human soul and who knows what monstrous yearnings can be spotted wriggling in that mysterious edifice?

Salome with the Head of St John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1530s)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes and a Servant (Lucas Cranach the Elder)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes, (Lucas Cranach the Elder, c.1530)

Salome with the Head of Saint John the Baptist (Lucas Cranach the Elder, oil on wood)

Judith with the Head of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach the Elder, ca.1520-1537, oil on wood)

Judith With The Head Of Holofernes (Lucas Cranach, 1530)

Maybe a better question is why I am posting about this facet of Cranach’s art.  Hmm, well for one thing I love Cranach’s painting and, even after writing about Melancholia earlier,  I wanted to address his work further.  Also despite their ghastly subject, these strange paintings are singularly beautiful and dramtic: I wanted to draw your attention into their haunted depths.  The fact that an incredibly talented painter spent nearly a decade painting nothing but pretty young women holding severed heads is worth remarking on for its own right(also I have also always thought that Freud might have something with his theories of Eros and Thanatos). At a more primitive level, I hoped some sixteenth century violence and horror might drum up ratings during the summer doldrums.  Most of all I want to use the paintings as memento mori (and I believe this was Cranach’s most pronounced intention also). Cranach and John the Baptist are long dead and turned to dust. Such is the fate of all flesh, but you are still alive and it’s a lovely June day.  Stop looking at troubling art and go revel in the sunshine!

Today is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric (August 24th, 410 AD).  For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events.  Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean.  Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic.  Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed.  They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).

Artist's Conception of the Visigoths Sacking Rome

Although hardly a genocide, the event was a watershed moment for classical society. Rome, the center of thought, government, and civilization—the city that had not fallen to an outside enemy for 800 years—was unable to mount a defense against a ragged group of barbarians and vagabonds.  St. Jerome, the man of letters who held such influence over Western thought during the dark ages, wrote:” It is the end of the world, I cannot write for the tears.”  The Western portion of the Roman Empire, already reeling from centuries of civil war and widespread agricultural crisis, staggered on for a few decades before being cut apart into sundry vassalages (which constituted the seeds of modern European kingdom states).

Le Sac de Rome par les Barbares en 410 (Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890)

Frequent readers of this blog will know my interest in the concept of “gothic”.  Although the Goths certainly have their own history prior to the sack of Rome, that event enshrined “gothic” as a broader social concept.  There have been plenty of barbarian tribes, but when Alaric looted the eternal city, he ensured that the name of his people would remain infamous. A millennium later, Renaissance writers, enthralled with the glories of classical society, used the word “gothic” to describe aspects of the intervening period which seemed old-fashioned, barbaric, cruel, and unenlightened.  Vasari used the word to pejoratively describe art and architecture from before Giotto (or from outside Italy). Once “gothic” had become synonymous with “Medieval”, it then came to be associated with gloom, mystery and the grotesque.  Victorian writers, scholars, artists, and architects found reason to celebrate these qualities with spooky novels, pre-Raphaelite painting, and creepy mansions.  In the contemporary era, “gothic” can mean any of these things or it can be applied to the contemporary goth counterculture movement.  But whatever the word means, it always seems to indicate something in opposition to the Greco-Roman, whig-liberal Western norm.


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023